Reliance Jio gets into the video conferencing game

Disruptive Indian telco Jio aspires to be much more than just a dumb pipe and its decision to launch its own video conferencing service is consistent with that ambition.

News of the launch of JioMeet comes courtesy of TechCrunch, which notes this is a clear attempt to take market share from the likes of Zoom, which have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. Like many of the video conferencing incumbents, JioMeet offers a bunch of free stuff, but uniquely it doesn’t seem to limit the time of a free video call.

Furthermore there is currently no talk of money whatsoever on the app page, implying Jio is once more giving stuff away for free to lure subscribers away from its competitors and keep them. This strategy has proven very effective so far and is one its cash-strapped peers will struggle to counter. A Jio subscription is starting to look more like a cable bundle than a mobile deal.

Jio Platforms has recently been on a fund-raising spree, presumably so it could underwrite giveaways such as this. The latest to join the party, late as ever, is Intel, which is chucking a quarter of a billion bucks into the pot in return for a 0.39% stake. Momentum looks overwhelmingly in Jio’s favour in India right now and it’s hard to see what anyone can do to prevent it eventually becoming a monopoly.

EncroChat hack shows there’s no such thing as secure communications

French police managed to penetrate a super-secure smartphone platform and catch loads of baddies, but what does this mean for the rest of us?

“DISMANTLING OF AN ENCRYPTED NETWORK SENDS SHOCKWAVES THROUGH ORGANISED CRIME GROUPS ACROSS EUROPE,” declares the Europol press release. It goes on to talk about the “impressive results” yielded by the successful hacking of secure smartphone platform EncroChat, which was favoured by criminals precisely because that was supposed to be impossible.

As a result, said criminals plotted freely over the platform, which combines specially adapted smartphones with a secure comms service. Once it was hacked, all the French coppers had to do was sit back and read their nefarious machinations, pausing only to nick some of them every now and then.

Eventually the charitable French shared the information gleaned from said hack, first with Dutch police and then others across Europe, including the UK. Our Old Bill was especially pleased with its results, announcing “NCA and police smash thousands of criminal conspiracies after infiltration of encrypted communication platform in UK’s biggest ever law enforcement operation.”

Here are the spoils of the UK operation so far:

  • 746 suspects
  • £54 million in criminal cash
  • 77 firearms, including an AK47 assault rifle, sub machine guns, handguns, four grenades, and over 1,800 rounds of ammunition
  • More than two tonnes of Class A and B drugs
  • Over 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an illicit laboratory
  • 55 high value cars
  • 73 luxury watches

The crowing from such energetic picking of low-hanging fruit didn’t end there. The National Crime agency couldn’t resist sharing some of the messages it intercepted from the baddies:

  • “This year the police are winning.”
  • “NCA as u know well are sophisticated and relentless.”
  • “If NCA then we have a big problem.”
  • “The police are having a field day.”

It seems like UK crims were already in such awe of the NCA that it’s surprising they didn’t render the whole operation unnecessary by simply throwing in the towel months ago.

“A dedicated team of over 500 NCA officers has been working on Operation Venetic night and day, and thousands more across policing,” said NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland. “And it’s all been made possible because of superb work with our international partners. “Together we’ve protected the public by arresting middle-tier criminals and the kingpins, the so-called iconic untouchables who have evaded law enforcement for years, and now we have the evidence to prosecute them.”

While it was decent of Holland to give a nod to the people who did the actual hacking, that was not an example Chief Constable Steve Jupp felt compelled to follow. “Serious organised crime is complex but working together with our Regional Organised Crimes Units and the National Crime Agency we have achieved an unparalleled victory against the kingpin criminals whose criminal activity and violence intimidates and exploits the most vulnerable,” said Jupp. “By dismantling these groups, we have saved countless lives and protected communities across the UK.”

Even the Home secretary, Priti Patel, got involved in the self-congratulation fest. “This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar,” said Patel. “I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”

There is, of course, nothing more satisfying than seeing hoards of euro-baddies caught with their pants down by the modern-day equivalent of Turing’s Enigma cracking efforts. From a policing and justice perspective we applaud all involved, a somewhat redundant gesture in the UK as they’ve already done such a great job of doing so themselves. Having said that, who can blame them, given the reputational virus they caught from the US in recent weeks?

Amid all this jubilation, however, let’s not lose sight of what underpins it all – the state hacking of a commercial secure messaging service – which begs the question of whether any messaging platform can be considered secure and free from the prying eyes of the state. How confident can anyone now be that their messages, which may not necessarily be incriminating, but would often generate at least awkwardness in the wrong hands, are secure?

EncroChat’s website boasts of its ability to “eliminate all possibilities for security trespassing and privacy exposure.” That went well didn’t it? But the PR disaster is not limited to EncroChat – how can the likes of Signal and even WhatsApp claim to be secure when an entire platform devoted to being just that has just been breached? As for the rest of us, it looks like the end of the lockdown has arrived just in time as noisy pubs stand as one of the few places left where we can be confident of having a private chat.

Contact tracing: moving from reactive to proactive

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Richard Baker, CEO of GeoSpock, looks at the various technologies being considered to help with the fight against coronavirus.

Easing the lockdown, while avoiding a second wave, is one of the great challenges of our time. To slow the spread of the virus, we’ve put our lives on hold, with health services and supply chains pushed to breaking point. With new cases expected until at least 2024, a rapid, joined-up approach to controlling the virus and preventing another pandemic is crucial.

Until a vaccine is found, technology holds the key to navigating back to normality and contributing to a coordinated response. Bluetooth-based contact tracing, which uses signals between mobile devices to ascertain which users are close to each other, has already been widely adopted in Asian countries. This is arguably more efficient than traditional contact tracing methods that require large staffs to interview patients about their whereabouts or even knock on the doors of contacts. However, it also has several areas in need of improvement, such as offering more incentives to encourage more people to use the app or tapping on other areas of technology to expand its functionality and efficiency.

To bring rates of transmission under control, it is necessary to shift from a reactionary to a proactive approach to contact tracing, with data-driven decisions at its core.

Bluetooth: a half measure

The tracing apps currently being tried and tested are Bluetooth-based. These are useful in alerting people when those infected cannot recall whom they have been in close proximity with for an extended duration. However, their uptake globally has proven slow, with many raising concerns over data privacy. While such Bluetooth apps do not collect location data, this is exactly the area where contact tracing could be further improved.

Bluetooth-only contact tracing is a reactionary solution, not a proactive one. If you are close enough to catch a Bluetooth signal, you are close enough to have already caught the virus. Nor are they sufficiently accurate. Bluetooth on its own only tells people the ‘who’, and not so much of the ‘where’ – a person travelling on a train could infect many people at opposite ends of the country in a single day. In addition, signals could be received through the windows of an isolation booth and can propagate further than airborne viral spread, providing inaccurate data. Whilst helping reduce onward infections with post-exposure mitigation, it isn’t effective for pre-exposure prevention. This all suggests we should be looking for a better technology solution.

The prevalence of communications technology can provide the answer. When harnessed fully, widespread mobile phone adoption can provide sophisticated environmental sensing. When combined with additional datasets and the ability to carry out rapid large-scale location data analytics, it would provide full-situational contextual intelligence. In turn, this can enable true data-driven decision making and a more coordinated response to the pandemic.

Greater understanding through location intelligence

A step by step approach is at the heart of the government’s plans to reopening of the economy, with non-essential services resuming gradually and when conditions allow. An understanding of the progression of the virus enables low-risk or low-exposure areas and industries to reopen, minimising both short-term and long-term economic disruption. It also allows continuity planning with an early-warning system to alert businesses to regional supply-chain disruptions or unavailability of public transportation services.

Data is vital to be able to understand our invisible enemy’s activity. This can be in the form of close-contact data, such as Bluetooth signals, or fine-grained location data, such as GPS signals from mobile devices or social media check-ins. Another category is coarse-grained location data, which includes government place-of-residency records and network-based location trilateration from telecoms providers using mobile phone towers. Meanwhile, supplementary contextual data can be in the form of COVID-19 testing outcomes, like crowd monitoring via CCTV or even weather conditions.

Location intelligence enables us to understand when and where the virus is progressing in real-time. This is vital for continuous situation management and provides governments with the data necessary to act safely, efficiently. It can underpin everything from healthcare resource management and business continuity planning, to exposure-risk assessment for individuals and track-and-trace activity with granular containment, isolation and travel policies. However, it’s important to remember that flexibility is paramount as the pandemic evolves and as new datasets become available or new outcomes are desired. In addition to the complex nature of the data ecosystem, some of the datasets will be machine generated, which means very large amounts of data will need to be stored and processed for insights and analytics.

Identifying virus hotspots

A highly sophisticated and specialised database is required to cope with these large and complex datasets, while maintaining rapid speed of response. The ability to fuse different data together and extract new insights can guide the design of new policies and guidelines.

For example, while a contact tracing app could alert individuals who have encountered someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, they could also be informed if hyper-localised cases have occurred in their neighbourhood or at their place of work. This would enable them to stay at home or avoid visiting public places to minimise exposure to any risks, without the need for a nationwide lockdown.

Healthcare managers could be alerted at an early stage to any regional growth in infection rates, enabling them to shift medical staff and resources to where they are needed most. Crucially, this can prevent healthcare services from becoming overwhelmed, while supplying frontline workers with the right equipment to keep them safe.

In addition, any nationwide analytics could enable the government to identify virus hotspots and react proactively and appropriately by locking down a town or city as opposed to the whole country. This kind of data-driven decision making, along with real-time monitoring and management of physical world systems, is critical when it comes to improving real-world outcomes.

Speed is the critical. With coronavirus able to spread rapidly, insights must be available instantly for decisions to be effective. The road ahead is uncertain, with globalisation increasing the likelihood that we will face future pandemics. As we move forward, data-driven technology is crucial if we are to navigate a path back to normality for all of us.

 

Richard Baker serves as the Chief Executive Officer of GeoSpock. With 25 years of experience in the technology sector, he joined GeoSpock to build the next great business to emerge from the Cambridge technology cluster. Prior to this, Richard ran his own successful start-up and has experience across four different industries.

Most Brits reckon contact tracing data will be misused but will provide it regardless

Identity software company Okta has surveyed a bunch of people in the UK and found that we’re among the most willing to provide location data to help fight COVID-19.

This blitz spirit remains in spite of a healthy scepticism about data privacy, with 84% of Brits believing their contact tracing data will be used for purposes unrelated to COVID-19, most probably advertising. 60% of UK respondents said they would be comfortable in providing location data to help the cause, much higher than the Netherlands (45%), Germany (47%), the US (48%) and Australia (49%).

“It’s great to see that despite privacy concerns, UK citizens are willing to provide their data in order to aid containment of COVID-19,” said Jesper Frederiksen, VP & GM EMEA at Okta. “However, it’s important that this trust is not abused. Over half (58%) of British citizens want a limit on who can access this data and many (46%) want a time limit on how long it can be tracked. Those collecting this data need to ensure they restrict who can access it and what it is used for.”

As ever with these corporate surveys, the purpose of the whole exercise will have been to generate demand for their products and services. So a lot of the canned quotes amount to ‘this just goes to show how important it is to protect your digital identity,’ something that Okta specialises in, of course.

But, assuming the data is clean, the findings remain valid. There doesn’t seem to have been a question asked regarding concerns about governments misusing the data themselves, as opposed to just commercializing it. If it was made clearer that the UK government could use contact tracing data to fundamentally infringe on civil liberties then we suspect that 60% number would start to fall rapidly.

‘Remove China Apps’ was top of the Indian Android charts until Google removed it

China seems to be falling out with everyone these days, as symbolised by the popularity of an Indian app designed solely to help uninstall Chinese ones.

The FT reports that ‘Remove China Apps’ was taken down from the Google Play store because Google’s policies don’t allow apps that help people delete or disable other apps. Judging by the cached app page, which you can see a screenshot of below, the developer tried to get around that stipulation by insisting the app merely served to inform people of the country of origin of their apps. If so, they somewhat undermined that effort with the naming of the app.

Onetouch Applabs, which developed the app, managed evade the Android police for a week or two, however, in which time it was apparently downloaded five million times and was briefly at the top of the download chart. The most intriguing aspect of this story is not that the app was taken down, but that it was so instantly popular.

“The focus of the prime minister Narendra Modi’s fifth televised address on Covid-19 was ‘Atm Nirbhar Bharat’ or a self-reliant India,” explains the developer. “Remove China App will help people to support “Atm Nirbhar Bharat’ by identifying  the origin country of the applications installed in their mobile phones.” Modi doesn’t seem to have named China specifically, but there’s plenty of evidence that’s the country he’s most keen to be less reliant on.

At the end of April India moved to protect its domestic assets from Chinese acquisition. More recently there has been significant tension at a bit of disputed border between India and China, at the Galwan Valley. The belligerent in that dispute appears to have been China, which is especially keen on claiming random bits of land these days.

Symbolically, the Galwan Valley region is near the ancient Silk Road between China and Europe/Africa. China’s Belt and Road strategy takes its name from that and is generally viewed as an attempt at economic imperialism. With India growing increasingly hostile to China and the US ramping its own antagonism, the country is running out of people to do business with. Unfortunately China seems likely to double down on its own belligerence in response to this resistance, which makes a new global cold war ever more likely.

YouTube is the UK’s most popular video streaming app

New data from App Annie reveals that YouTube still tops the SVoD platforms when it comes to time spent streaming in the UK via apps.

Precise metrics aren’t offered, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that YouTube was miles ahead of the rest. Not only is it free, but many people, especially children and teenagers, actively prefer the kind of user-generated content they find there to high production-value proper telly and movies.

Netflix is next, which also comes as no surprise, followed by the BBC’s catch up service – iPlayer – and then Amazon video, which is free to anyone who already has an Amazon Prime subscription. In at number 5 is MX Player which, we have to confess, we had to look up. It’s an Indian SVoD platform, so clearly there’s a lot of demand for content from that part of the world in the UK.

Rounding off the list we have a bunch of other catch-up apps and Twitch, which is mainly used to stream computer games. Another data point that would have been interesting to see is total time spent on streaming apps compared to previous quarters. There must surely have been a significant increase.

Apple and Google release jointly developed exposure notification API

Just over a month after they started working on it, Apple and Google have made their COVID-fighting framework available to public health authorities.

The key to using smartphones for exposure notification and contract tracing is giving them the ability to constantly sense each other. This is best done through Bluetooth LE, but both iOS and Android prevent apps from using Bluetooth unless they’re active, so a special workaround is required. That has been built into this framework, but is only available to apps that use it.

“Starting today, our exposure notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android,” said a joint statement from the companies. “What we’ve built is not an app—rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better.

“Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”

The Verge reports that three US states (the response is much more decentralised over there) are already working on apps that use the framework. That piece also contains some handy explanations and links about the underlying tech and privacy implications. Apparently a total of 22 countries have received access to the API.

Turning this around so quickly is a good effort from Apple and Google, as was their quick decision to put business rivalry to the side for the time being, but then this sort of thing is one of their core competencies. The same can’t be said for health agencies, which is why the hubris of those, like the NHS in the UK, is so frustrating. They should stop trying to reinvent the wheel and go with the best technology available, which is almost certainly this.

ETSI gets to work on new contact tracing app standard

With countries across Europe all trying to reinvent the wheel with their own contact tracing apps, standardization is long overdue.

The responsibility for this has been taken by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, which has created a special group dedicated to developing a ‘standardization framework for secure smartphone-based proximity tracing systems’. It’s called the Industry Specification Group “Europe for Privacy-Preserving Pandemic Protection,” which is mercifully abbreviated to ISG E4P.

“By their nature smartphones are highly personal devices, carrying large amounts of data about individuals,” said ETSI Director-General Luis Jorge Romero. “In ETSI we are committed to support an international development community with a robust standardization framework that allows rapid, accurate and reliable solutions while winning the trust of the population at large.”

Point well made about trust Luis. The UK, for example, currently seems determined to give its National Health Service access to the data created by the national contact tracing app. Not only would this alienate Google and Apple, thus making the app a lot less effective, but it would almost certainly lead to far fewer people using it.

“A primary challenge is collecting, processing and acting on information about citizens’ proximity at scale, potentially representing tens or hundreds of millions of people,” says the ETSI announcement. “This must also be achieved without compromising users’ anonymity and privacy, and while safeguarding them against exposure to potential cyber-attacks.”

Again, Google and Apple seem to have this more or less covered, but there’s no way a mega public bureaucracy like the EU would ever concede the private sector might have the answer to a public problem. So ETSI will probably take weeks to come up with something very similar, at which time the EC will order all its members to use it regardless of any progress they’ve made independently.

Google and Apple begin testing COVID-19 exposure notification API

Just a couple of weeks after revealing their intention to collaborate over a contact tracing app, Google and Apple have made the first API available to developers.

There doesn’t seem to have been a formal announcement, but plenty of US tech media such as Tech Crunch and the Verge are reporting on it, implying they have been notified directly. It’s being called the ‘exposure notification’ API, which seems to be designed to provide a more specific description as well as making the whole thing sound a bit less intrusive and Orwellian.

The reports say more details will be made available tomorrow, but access to the code will remain limited to public health authorities. While this creates concerns about how the apps will function, especially with respect to privacy, it also makes sense as a fragmentation of the contact tracing app ecosystem would massively diminish the effectiveness of each one.

The political implications of this unprecedented collaboration between the two companies the dominate the global smartphone market aren’t limited to privacy concerns. Opinion is divided about whether the decentralised approach advocated here or a centralised one in which governments gather data from smartphones is best.

While it may lose some of the public communication tools offered by the centralised approach, we feel the Google/Apple approach is better for the simple reason of trust. If people think a contact tracing app will be used to spy on them and arbitrarily punish them, they’re much less likely to install and use it. The efficacy of such an app relies on the participation of a large proportion of the population, so the number one priority should be maximising uptake.